There is some argument over where England’s south west actually begins. What is certain is that the area has links to characters of legend and mysticism as well as featuring some of the finest beaches in the UK. Home to pioneers, inventors, pirates and wreckers, the south west is a playground for surfers but also the site of the UK’s largest conservation project and, when the sun shines, a paradise for young and old alike.
Bristol is the region’s largest airport and the city itself is one rich in culture. Situated just over 100 miles from London, the city is one of England’s oldest sea ports so it’s fitting that one of its chief attractions nowadays is the SS Great Britain. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s revolutionary iron-hulled steam ship is the centre piece of the SS Great Britain Maritime Heritage Centre.
Crossing into Somerset, one of the main roads towards Devon and Cornwall will take you past impressive Dunster Castle near Minehead, a fortress situated on a tor or hill overlooking an ancient market town. The castle has undergone several renovations through the centuries but has lost nothing of its commanding presence over the surrounding countryside.
Cheddar Caves and Gorge is Britain’s largest gorge and, of course, gives its name to one of the UK’s most famous cheeses and from there it’s only a short drive to Bath. The Roman Baths that date back more than 2000 years are still in use to this day and are one of several attractions that form part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, while Bath’s Royal Crescent and Circus have been used as a setting by countless film companies down the years.
Nearby, there is an ancient cathedral at Wells and Glastonbury is home to the world’s oldest Christian church above ground. It’s also reputed to be the final resting place of the legendary King Arthur while the famed Glastonbury Thorn is said to have taken root from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, though stories that Christ’s Holy Grail were buried here have never been proved.
Since the development of the railways in the UK, Devon has been a popular tourist destination. A ride on the cliff railway that links twin towns Lynton and Lynmouth on the north coast is an unforgettable experience but, if its peace, beauty and tranquillity you yearn for, there are few more relaxing ways of spending a day than at Rosemoor Garden near Torrington. The vast gardens are managed by the RHS, who are also responsible for the world-famous Chelsea Flower Show.
You can watch craftsmen sculpting crystal glass at Dartington Crystal in Great Torrington and keep a look out for the diminutive Dartmoor ponies on a drive across the desolate-yet-beautiful Dartmoor National Park, haunt of smugglers in years gone by. The beaches at Maidencombe and Babbacombe near Torquay have led the area to be dubbed ‘The English Riviera’ and are perfect for sun-bathers. The kids will also love Paignton Zoo. A winner of various awards, the zoo is involved in almost 100 worldwide breeding and conservation programmes.
Cornwall is the last stopping off point before mainland UK meets the Atlantic Ocean but, though the journey down to England’s most westerly county can be a long one, it will inevitably be worthwhile.
The Eden Project at St Austell features a huge collection of tropical plants housed in two eco domes and surrounded by 25 acres of gardens. There are regular events and presentations staged throughout the year. You can explore ancient tin mines at Trenear, near Helston, and Geevor, north of Penzance, while spectacular St Michael’s Mount and the open-air theatre at Minack perpetuate the theme of mysticism encapsulated by the ruins of Tintagel Castle, birthplace of the Arthurian legend, which can be found near Camelford on the north coast.
No visit to the south west can be complete without a photo at Land’s End but, worldwide, Cornwall is probably best known nowadays for its surfing beaches. Newquay is the UK’s surfing capital and even attracts international competitions. If you enjoy life among the high-rollers and look good in a wetsuit, this is the place to be.